Born on June 4, 1963, in Detroit, MI. Addresses: Record company---Transmat Records, 1492 Gratiot Ave., Detroit, MI, 48207, phone: (313) 567-0080, fax: (313) 567-0082, website: Website---Derrick May Official Website:

Of the three men credited with unleashing techno music on the world, Derrick May is considered the music's innovator and its spokesperson. In the mid-1980s May, along with his Belleville, Michigan, high school friends Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, created the electronic dance music sound that would come to be known as techno. The three young men---later to be known as the Holy Trinity of Techno, or the Belleville Three---tinkered with antiquated electronic music gear and developed a dance sound that was as icily cool as it was soulfully warm. Strongly influenced by Chicago's house music scene and by the waning disco club scene of New York, techno was thought of by the trio as an escape from the bleak surroundings of their suburban neighborhood. Its mechanical sound in many ways imitated the sounds of the once-thriving factories of nearby Detroit, sounds that were silenced after thousands of people left the city following the race riots in 1967. May's techno embraced the decay of the industrial city, but it also sang out in an evangelical way, imagining Detroit as a utopia that wasn't ravaged by poverty, violence, and poor race relations.

May was born on June 4, 1963, in Detroit. In the late 1970s he and his family moved to Belleville, a predominantly white suburb midway between the Motor City and Ann Arbor. It was there, at Belleville High School, that May met Atkins and Saunderson. They spent many nights listening to Charles "The Electrifying Mojo" Johnson on WJLB radio, and making the trek back to Detroit to attend parties where house DJs like Ken Collier would spin records until dawn.

Soon they began focusing a great deal of attention on DJing. The three quickly formed a collective under the name Deep Space and began throwing parties of their own. May also ran a side-gig collective known as KAOS, a separate and lesser-known endeavor from Deep Space. Commenting on the marketing plan for his burgeoning DJ career, May told Dan Sicko, author of Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, "We had amazing flyers back then, [which contained] these subliminal messages of an alternative way of thinking. We were trying to attract people that wanted to be alternative and wanted to be different, but our definition of alternative was the kind of music we were making---not so much a lifestyle... [but] just the way you thought about music. Far too often people associate the term 'alternative' with borderline rock."

When May was in his last year of high school his mother moved to Chicago. May frequently visited his mom in her new town and absorbed the house music scene that was booming there in the mid-to-late 1980s. He ended up spending roughly a year there at one point. His favorites of the city's countless DJs were Frankie Knuckles---the man credited with starting the house sound---and Farley Jack Master Funk, also a Chicago legend.

Along with DJing others' music---often on their own late-night radio shows like Detroit radio station WJLB's Street Beat---May began purchasing whatever electronic synthesizers and drum machines he could find and recording the rough-hewn tracks that would come to define the techno genre. In 1986 he and Atkins produced the 12-inch single "Let's Go" under the name X-Ray, for Atkins's new label, Metroplex. "When I made my first record, it was with Juan [Atkins]," May told Sicko. "I didn't like it, but then, I didn't do it. Having someone produce you when you think you know what you're doing, but you really don't, is really demoralizing. But I went along with it and I did the parts---the bassline and what have you---and Juan took the song and created it."

A year later May started Transmat Records, a name he lifted from Atkins's song "Night Drive." The label's first release was May's defining moment. Under the name Rhythim is Rhythim he produced 1987's "Nude Photo," a warm-sounding track that owed as much to Atkins's hard edge as it did to Chicago's soulful house atmosphere. Soon after came "Strings of Life," another well-known techno classic that sampled string sounds from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Saunderson, leaning more toward the pop side of things with his new band Inner City, struck it big with the hits "Good Life" and "Big Fun," singles that first arrived via his KMS label.

By the late 1980s Detroit techno was in full swing, evidenced by the Belleville Three's success and the countless number of other labels and DJs that had cropped up in the city. Parties were held in legitimate clubs like the Music Institute---founded by members of Deep Space---and in underground warehouses, many of which utilized the crumbling buildings abandoned by the city, and their success partially revived the once vacant downtown core. Transmat, Metroplex, and KMS all began releasing work by artists other than the Belleville Three, including many musicians from Europe. With the money that they made, the labels took residence in a building on Gratiot Avenue. To the growing electronic dance community in Detroit, that strip of Gratiot became known as Techno Boulevard.

Even though techno thrived in Detroit, the rest of the country was slow to pick up on its popularity. Most of the labels' revenue came from Europe and abroad, and soon May and his partners were jetting overseas on weekends to ply their trade as DJs and sell their records to dance-hungry stores and distributors. Their frequent trips to Europe left a void in the burgeoning Detroit scene, but in their absence younger DJs like Carl Craig and Windsor, Ontario's Richie Hawtin came on the scene and neatly bridged the gap.

May continued DJing and recording, often under other monikers like Mayday, until 1990, when, reportedly fed up with the vapidity of the worldwide club scene---and probably partially because of his lack of recognition in the United States---he took a leave of absence from music. "I sort of ran away from it for several years, and I ran away right at the peak," he told Ben Rayner in the Toronto Star. "Most people peak out and then they run away, and I think one of the reasons why I've lasted is I left at the peak."

May returned in 1993 and released a string of records including "Icon," "Kaotic Harmony," and a collection of unreleased tracks titled Relics. While he still garnered respect from his peers and fans overseas, his recording schedule was severely cut back during the late 1990s. In 1997 he released the compilation Innovator, which collected most of his previous works on CD.

In 2000 Carl Craig, a second-wave techno artist and close friend of May's, organized the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival and asked May to perform on the last of its three days. Almost out of nowhere, the event ushered in a new respect for the genre that May and his friends had created nearly fifteen years earlier, as more than one million attendees converged on Detroit's Hart Plaza over Memorial Day weekend. May was scheduled to headline the festival the following year, but the event was cut short when a late-night hailstorm rained down on the crowd.

Subsequent years of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival were marred by controversy between Craig, his business partner Carol Marvin, and the city of Detroit. Wanting to keep the festival alive, May and Transmat took over production duties for the festival's fourth and fifth years, and renamed the event Movement. Shortly after the 2004 installment of the festival, techno was finally given its due when Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm presented May and Saunderson with the International Achievement Award at the Governor's Awards for Arts and Culture ceremony that August.

by Ken Taylor

Derrick May's Career

Started DJing in Belleville, MI, and Detroit, 1981; produced "Let's Go" with Juan Atkins as X-Ray, 1986; founded Transmat Records, 1987; produced "Nude Photo," "The Dance," and "Strings of Life" as Rhythim is Rhythim, 1987; produced "Freestyle" as Mayday, 1988; produced "The Beginning," "Salsa Life," and "Drama" as Rhythim is Rhythim, 1990; produced "Kaotic Harmony" and "Icon" as Rhythim is Rhythim, 1993; released Innovator as Derrick May, 1997.

Derrick May's Awards

Michigan Governor's Awards for Arts and Culture, International Achievement Award, 2004.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…